Friday, January 30, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Cadet Killy

Year: 1981
Director: Eric Weston
Cast: Clint Howard, R. G. Armstrong, Joe Cortese
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I might as well just stop Census Bloodbath right here and now, because Evilspeak is possibly the most 80's movie ever made. Of course, I must continue - my contract with the Dark Ones has very little wiggle room. But this film is so exhaustingly, damnably culled from the darkest depths of the decade that it pushes beyond the envelope of camp into the dark, impenetrable void beyond.

Combining Video Nasty status-earning gore with the waning specter of Brian de Palma's Carrie, the caveman-like fascination 80's screenwriters had with rudimentary computer technology, and the burgeoning Satanic Panic, Evilspeak is an indelibly strange amalgamation. If it only included a pair of roller blades and maybe some Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, it would be the indisputable king of 80's horror.

All hail the goblin king.

Evilspeak tells the story of Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), a cadet at West Andover Military Academy, which I guess unofficially continues my Back to Skull college slasher marathon. Every single person in the world hates Coopersmith. He's basically the Justin Bieber of the Massachusets military. 

The school bullies, led by the vicious Bubba (Don Stark) despise him because he is chubby and clumsy and school rules force him to play on their soccer team. Their bone-chillingly clever, incisive nickname for him is "Cooperdick." Keep it up, fellas. You're doing God's work. The Coach (Claude Earl Jones of Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Miracle Mile) hates him because he keeps losing games. The head of the school hates him because he is a poor orphan welfare case and a symbol of the school's financial erosion.

Coopersmith's only friends are his classmate Kowalski (Haywood Nelson of What's Happening!) and the school's cook, a gruff but understanding man named Jake (Lenny Montana of Blood Song). But after relentless torment at the hands of everybody and their mother and their kitchen sink, he's understandably a little irate at humanity in general. When he is sentenced to clean up the chapel basement as punishment for something he didn't do (I mean, seriously), he finds a Satanic book left behind by the excommunicated Spanish Satanist Father Lorenzo Esteban (Richard Moll of House).

He loads the text of the book into his trusty computer, and it becomes an expert on the rites of Black Mass. He fashions a secret room in a convenient basement cave, fills it with the entire candle stock of Pier One, and sets out to see if he can summon that pesky Devil. While he searches for the blood of a consecrated host ("Gotta have it," he sighs, like he's buying pomegranate juice at the supermarket), the computer gets possessed by the vengeful spirit of Esteban, who seeks revenge for something or other.

Maybe he's mad he didn't snag some of that Apple stock before he died.

For just about its entirety, Evilspeak is a supernatural bullying drama rather than a slasher movie, only picking up any sort of body count during its final sequence. So as a candidate for Census Bloodbath it's not exactly prime, but as a candidate for cheesy Satanic horror it's... still not exactly prime. There's a great deal of amusement to be found in the computer graphics which have aged worse than the horse-drawn carriage, but beyond that the film is plodding. Despite matching the classic Carrie in its slow-burn buildup to an explosion of carnage, it lacks that film's sense of gravitas and thematic resonance.

For the bulk of its run time, Evilspeak devotes itself to a depiction of bullying unrivaled in even the most hardcore John Hughes films as Bubba and his crew prank, injure, and verbally assault Coopersmith. They toss his hat out the window, sabotage his class project, and (last but not least) slaughter his dog. It's unrelenting and mean-spirited, doing a good job of depicting just how bad a situation the act of bullying can cause, but not providing much reason to enjoy the act of watching the film.

It's a nice bit of representation to have a lead character who's a little dumpy, so I respect that, but the tone of the film is just a bit too morbid. Not even unintentionally campy moments like a character vowing to "extract revenge," the music evoking Tom and Jerry whenever the janitor comes onscreen, or the bullies attempting to seem threatening at a roller disco can save Evilspeak from its dismal fog.

Not even THIS scene can - OK, this scene is pretty cool.

The saving grace of Evilspeak is its ending. The supernatural horror steadily builds up in the background in the form of some surprisingly effective low-key fright gags until it screams like a kettle, pulling out all the stops and dumping the entire remainder of its budget.

Many of the movies persecuted in Britain as Video Nasties live on the strength of one particular scene and this film is no different. This grand explosion of a finale features decapitations galore in a burning church, an evil heard of pigs mauling a soccer team, and a bully's still-being heart ripped from his chest. It's, in a word, awesome, and the one reason I would recommend this film to anyone.

You'll have a devil of a time.

If you're stalwart enough to survive the dreary excesses of the first half of the film, Evilspeak can be immensely rewarding. And its attempts at depicting the mistreatment of young cadets is admittedly impactful. Although I wish that it was more than a cut-and-dry Satanic revenge story and had more thematic meat on its bones, the flick is chock full of top notch Magic Computer nonsense and surprisingly decent grue when the time comes.

I'm afraid I have to halfheartedly recommend it. Do with that what you must.

Killer: Father Lorenzo Esteban (Richard Moll) and/or Lucifer (Himself), acting through a boxy computer and/or Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard)
Final Girl: Not even close.
Best Kill: As the wrist of a large crucifix begins to show a pulse, the nail through Christ's hand wriggles out and impales Reverend Jameson's forehead.

Sign of the Times: Literally anything that happens to any computer, which is pretty much everything.

Scariest Moment: A weird fetus creature in a jar begins to wriggle and escape during a dream sequence.
Weirdest Moment: Coopersmith asks his computer "What are the keys to the kingdom of Satan's magic?" and somehow expects an answer in the era before Google.
Champion Dialogue: "Don't they teach you damn fool cadets nothin' about pigs?"
Body Count: 13; not counting poor Freddy the dog.
  1. Topless Sacrifice is decapitated with a sword.
  2. Sarge's head is spun around backward.
  3. Miss Friedemeyer is mauled by pigs in the shower.
  4. Colonel Kincaid is impaled on a hanging chandelier.
  5. Reverend Jameson is impaled in the forehead with a crucifix nail.
  6. Cadet #1 burns to death.
  7. Colonel Something or Other has a sword burst his skull.
  8. Cadet #2 is mauled by pigs.
  9. Cadet #3 is decapitated with a sword.
  10. Cadet #4 is killed offscreen.
  11. Coach is decapitated with a sword.
  12. Cadet #5 is mauled by pigs.
  13. Bubba is strangled and has his heart pulled out of his chest. 
TL;DR: Evilspeak is a mean-spirited slog that is occasionally livened up by some top notch practical effects.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1229

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Wrath Of Achilles

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 2015
Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Kristin Chenoweth, Ryan Guzman
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

What makes a movie good? Production values? Performances? Layered subtext about the Irish potato famine? These questions get infinitely more complex when you dive into the world of genre films. Many of you may have noticed my adjusted scale slasher movies, which is the only possible explanation for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Gravity getting the same score. So how do I come to these impossible conclusions?

The new J-Lo thriller The Boy Next Door is an excellent illustration of the process. This little cheese puff has over-baked performances, dialogue so wooden you could kill a vampire with it, and a thoroughly trashy sensibility. But the film is so sincerely, effortfully committed to producing a perfectly disposable morsel of popcorn movie magic that it's beyond reproach for being exactly that. Its goals are far from lofty, but it accomplishes them with aplomb.

It's not quite clever enough to earn itself a truly reputable score even on my scale, but The Boy Next Door captures the spirit of the Dance. Sure, every plot beat is predictable from the opening credits. But the pleasure of the film comes from enacting that exact generic formula in a way that's just different enough to be exciting. Sometimes an audience just wants to sit back, turn off their brains, and have a good time, which this film faithfully delivers. 

Also included on the delivery list: perfect sideburns.

The plot, insofar as it matters, goes as follows: high school teacher Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) is unhappily married to a cheating husband (John Corbett of United States of Tara), who she can't quite bring herself to separate from. When her son Kevin (Ian Nelson) befriends the hunky next door neighbor Noah (Ryan Guzman), she finds herself irresistibly attracted to him although he's a student in her class.

Don't worry, he's "20". We wouldn't want this to be too illegal and/or un-hunky.

After a disastrous double date with her BFF/vice principal Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth), the vulnerable Claire gives in to temptation and hops onto Noah's ark. After a steamy, unforgettable night, Noah becomes obsessive, attempting to seduce, menace, and blackmail Claire into running away with him. His violent temper soon threatens to destroy everything she holds dear.

Between several surprisingly high tension action sequences held together by a wing, a prayer, and a handheld camera (possibly operated by a bungee jumper) lies howlingly trite dialogue like "I'm not following you... I live next door." A bully who looks like Ed Sheeran attempts to sound threatening while name dropping Wizards of Waverly Place. There is equal screentime allotted to thematic throughlines wrangled around both Homer's The Iliad and a plate of cookies. So, North by Northwest this ain't. 

The power of The Boy Next Door lies in the fact that it throws caution to the wind to embrace its pedigree. Nothing in this film is meant to be taken seriously on any level other than unadulterated fun. It might not be quite as exhilarating as it wants to be, laboring as it does under a first act in which the plot is a little more lethargic and Lopez acts like she's a Barbie that has just been brought to life via a gypsy curse. However as the plot picks up and the actress shakes off the slick MTV fairy dust, the film really comes into its own as a pitch perfect disasterpiece.

That dude sure loves belly buttons. He kneeled all the way down there just to- oh.

While The Boy Next Door is a generic, glossy thriller at best, it has some remarkable idiosyncrasies that help it rise to the top of the heap. First, coming as it does from Blumhouse Productions, the film abruptly veers toward gory psycho horror in the final act, even including an honest-to-goodness Spring-Loaded Cat scare. Of course, this also means that Claire makes her share of bad horror movie decisions, which only ramps up the audience investment in the implacable formula of the film. Sometimes you just gotta yell at that lazy-ass character who forgets to double tap - it's human nature.

In addition to this surprising turn of events, The Boy Next Door is almost shockingly shot from a female perspective. Although the director is a man, the writer and star are both women, and the film's content is a magnetic reversal of common genre tropes, objectifying its male antagonist into oblivion. That's right, Ryan Guzman gets the full Bond Girl deluxe treatment. The camera lingers on his taut, muscular flesh, barely hidden beneath thin, exposing layers of fabric. You can almost see the sweat beading on the camera lens. 

This is not a screengrab from the movie, but it ain't too far from the truth.

And I won't get too into this because it's not like the movie has any similar inclinations, but the entire driving plot is centered around the idea of male entitlement gone wrong. Every problem in the film is caused by either a cheating husband or a petulant, greedy boy. It's important to note that it is not Claire's sexual transgression that brings the hammer down upon her and her family, but rather Noah's mind having been poisoned by unrealistic expectations. It's fascinating, to say the least.

And there's even another cherry on top of all of that. Although the thriller elements of the plot feel like they are pitched squarely toward the relatively wholesome teen audience, this film has an R-rating for a reason. It could never in a million years be considered a hard R, but the film sets low expectations for itself and exceeds them with gusto. Claire and Noah's night together is about as explicit as a film can get without actually showing nipples. I definitely saw fingers going places that would not be permitted in a PG-13. Let's just say that whatever drama Claire went through afterwards might actually have been worth it. It's a steamy, steamy scene and an utter shock to the system in this bland slate of January programming we've been getting in 2015.

Also there's cursing and gore, so I feel right at home.

All that's missing is a chainsaw and a scene at a drive-in.

OK, some quick thoughts before we wrap up. First, Kristin Chenoweth is the clear standout, providing a generic Sassy Best Friend role with some real fire and panache. Second, modern technology is integrated more successfully than ever here, including a scene that somehow turns deleting files into an action-packed extravaganza. You know how much I love my tech not uncomfortably shoved into the narrative (*cough cough* The Fault in Our Stars).

All in all, The Boy Next Door is shameless fun, recommended to anyone who doesn't want to think to hard but still feel like they got their money's worth of soap bubble entertainment. Hollywood hasn't made an idiotic film this airy in a long time, so please don't just write it off. Respect the genre. Enjoy yourself.

TL;DR: The Boy Next Door is pulpy trash, but who says that has to be a bad thing?
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? As long as you know what you're in for, I'd give a resounding yes.
Word Count: 1223

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Eyes Of The Storm

Year: 2010
Director: Guillem Morales
Cast: Belén Rueda, Lluis Homar, Pablo Derqui
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Guillermo del Toro has a sterling reputation for Spanish-language horror, so any film with his name attached must be treated with appropriate reverence. Although he only produced 2010's Los Ojos de Julia (aka the supremely boring translation Julia's Eyes), the del Toro brand immediately puts the film under a great deal of pressure both as a horror film and an artistic work. Luckily for everyone, just about clears that overambitious bar.

Directed by Guillem Morales, the sprawling flick suffers without a firm directorial hand to guide it from start to finish, but the performances are riveting, the quiet horror hums with tension, and the visual schema is absolutely stunning. 

A bit ironically, I suppose.

You see, Los Ojos de Julia is about blindness. For a card-carrying hypochondriac like myself, this might as well be Spider Clowns: The Movie for all the immediate fear this topic draws within me. So take this review with a slight grain of salt if you're a hale and hearty specimen who has never stared infirmity and mortality right in the face. I mean, not that I have, but when you have a six hour lighting class with only one bathroom break, you get pretty close.

Julia Levin (Belén Rueda) suffers from a degenerative disease that threatens to tear her vision away from her, especially during periods of high stress. After her estranged twin sister Sara (Belén Rueda in a terrible wig) loses her sight and apparently hangs herself, Julia is understandably distraught. Against the protestations of her husband Isaac (Lluís Homar), she investigates Sara's untimely death, using the last of her waning vision to uncover a series of clues that prove that all might not be as it seems.

Later on, she has an operation to replace her eyes, relying on helpful nurse Iván (Pablo Derqui) to guide her through her recovery. Plunged into a world of darkness (she can't allow any light to reach her eyes in the first couple weeks, lest she lose her sight permanently), she battles her own body for dominance while beginning to realize that a shadowy entity who preys on the blind might very well be coming for her.

Spoilers: It's the lamp.

The first part of the film is markedly stronger than the second - which begins to unravel rapidly during its final stages - but the vision horror that forms the spine of the disparate halves is universally magnetic. The entire film crackles with live-wire tension, coaxed out by its expertly precise cinematography.

Obviously cinema, being a visual medium, faces certain challenges when it comes to the depiction of blindness. But Los Ojos de Julia takes one look at that argument and laughs so hard it snorts milk out its nose. Using the camera to limit the range of vision, cinematographer Óscar Faura (who also shot The Orphanage and the Oscar-nominated Imitation Game) only exposes objects in the set as the characters come across them, forcing us to make the stumbling journey right alongside Julia as she struggles to make her way around. People's faces are also mostly kept out of frame, plunging the entire film into a mysterious shadowy netherworld where even the simplest of ideas - like the identity of a long-present character - are cast into doubt.

The film also uses light and shadow to its distinct advantage, creating entirely new environments within established sets by suddenly casting areas into perilous shadow. It's really an unparalleled cinematographic masterwork, dragging the audience headfirst into the blistering tension.

You never know what's just around the corner.

The story itself is secondary to the stunning aesthetic, but it's a largely engaging and ethereal mystery. It incorporates the quasi-mythological idea of shadow people into a Hollywood-style narrative, which is a very Guillermo-esque touch, but other than that it's mostly unexceptional. The final half hour screams to be cut almost entirely, introducing inexplicable new subplots to the detriment of the main throughline, but several episodes of nail-biting eye-trauma keep the film from sinking entirely.

All in all, its keen style makes Los Ojos de Julia worthy of rubbing shoulders with some of del Toro's Spanish works, but its story is too saggy to truly create anything more than a fun, tense murder mystery. That's adamantly not a bad thing, but this film could be a life-changing experience and only manages to be a memorable one. Oh well. Que será será.

TL;DR: Los Ojos de Julia is a stunning visual masterpiece, but features a story with too much bloat to be truly epic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 775

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Graduation Day

Year: 1986
Director: John P. Finnegan
Cast: Mollie O'Mara, Sharon Christopher, Mari Butler
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

"In the darkness, there is evil. Within the evil, there is death."

Hello, everybody! Welcome to the final day of Back to Back to Skull! The torment is about to end! Well, for you. I still have an entire semester of college left after this. Our final excursion into the world of co-ed campus slashfests is Girls School Screamers, another release by the notorious bad movie production company Troma.

The poster for Girls School Screamers has it all: a syntactically confusing but tantalizing title, a tagline that has more punctuation than a text message in 2007, a wormy cadaver with a cleaver, screaming bikini girl mayhem, and a nun on uppers. I might actually prefer staring at that poster for 80 minutes over the film, because not a lick of it is accurate in any meaningful way.

And there are NO good screenshots on Google. Like I want to work to find slasher stills. Rude.

Girls School Screamers is a woefully dull late 80's B-flick, wavering between being a haunted house movie and a slasher for 40 minutes before deciding that it should be both. Poorly. We open with the best scene in the film, in which a young boy is dared to enter an empty haunted house and is confronted by a rotted, worm-riddled ghost in a wedding dress. She gibbers and he runs and the credits roll on a film that is in every way less interesting - and almost entirely unrelated.

Some time later the estate - which belonged to the late Tyler Welles (Charles Braun) - is bequeathed to the Trinity School for Girls. When a group of young women is sent along with the kindly Sister Urban (Vera Gallagher) to catalogue the contents of the mansion, they hold a seance (of course they do) and awaken the slumbering spirit - who seemed pretty lively just a minute ago but what do I know.

By the way, the barely distinguishable Meat platter consists of Jackie (Mollie O'Mara), a young woman who discovers that she has a striking resemblance to Tyler's young niece Jennifer, who died in that very house in 1939; Elizabeth (Sharon Christopher), who is engaged to an unseen character, though if her strange predilection for acting with her eyebrows is an indicator, it might just be Eric Freeman from Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2; Rosemary (Monica Antonucci), a childish slob who wears an ash gray track suit who probably would have become a gym teacher had she not met her untimely peril; Adelle (Marcia Hinton) the token black friend who has not a trace of a character trait but is charming anyway; Susan (Karen Krevitz), the Blonde One; and Kate (Mari Butler) and Karen (Beth O'Malley), who are not the Blonde One.

After a full half hour of Sister Urban toddling around like a dizzy turtle and the girls counting objects (riveting), they finally begin to murdered one by one by an unseen force as Jackie slowly reads through Jennifer's diary at plot-convenient intervals to find out exactly what terrible thing happened in this house. Spoiler: It's boring.

Somewhere between The Dorm That Dripped Blood and Sorority House Massacre II, the plot is DOA, seemingly only a channel to display buxom ladies in their skivvies. The fact that the film fails to even do that (not a single topless scene, and no underwear to be found) is a testament to its supreme, almost otherworldly inadequacy. The kills in the film are shot with a level of basic splatter film competence, but lack any arresting grue thanks to the social climate of 1986 and or a budget flimsier than those "tearable" edges on notebook paper. So what any self-respecting cheapie would do is scoop up an armful of breasts and drop them onto the set to make up for a lack of bloody FX. Those come cheap and you don't have to wash them off quite as often. But alas, Girls School Screamers is beyond even that basic courtesy.

Also some boys show up, but we don't even get a sex scene. Exploitation shouldn't necessarily be a genre to strive for, but if you're going to take your stab at it, at least do it right.

The biggest sin of Girls School Screamers is that it's damn boring, but there's plenty of smaller sins sprinkled around for taste:

Sin #1: The Acting

When there are no headshots on the entire IMDb cast list of a film, you know there's a problem with the talent. So we won't dive into this too much, but it must be said that Mollie O'Mara makes no attempt to differentiate Jackie from Jennifer Welles (who she plays in flashback) or even hazard a guess as to what people in the 1930's might have acted like. Vera Gallagher plays her elderly character so woozily that it looks like she might drop dead at any moment and Peter Cosimano (as Paul, Jackie's boyfriend) rattles off five page monologues with machine-gun monotony.

Sin #2: The Music

The composer here could give the guy who wrote my AAA driving video theme song a run for his money. His go-to theme is nothing less than a steel drum variation on The Exorcist and though I can say that I never dreamed I'd hear something like that, I can't say that it was good by any definition of the word.

Sin #3: The Dialogue

When it's not being written and enunciated like a masterpiece theater melodrama, the screenplay skitters into the corner and concocts strange new verbal creations, the likes of which have never been heard before or since. A personal favorite is "he wanted to paint a portrait of me with himself as the artist." Also, I'm pretty sure Paul keeps calling his girlfriend "pal," but I could never get a bead on his exact verbiage because of his record-breaking vocal WPM.

Sin #4: The Miscellaneous

It's just a poorly-constructed film, is what it is. Sister Urban tells the story of what happened to poor Jennifer, the film cuts to an entirely different person telling the same story to somebody else. Unnecessary and perplexing moments like this abound, like when Paul insists on visiting the newspaper archives to investigate the house where his girlfriend is staying, though he has absolutely no reason to be suspicious. The film briefly livens up during a flashback when it very nearly turns into  a silent melodrama, but for the most part it clunks along like a bike with square wheels.

The best thing I can say about Girls School Screamers is that the kills are mildly engaging for their variety and that people are actually visible in the nighttime scenes. These moments are quite obviously "lit" but I'll take a visible spotlight over a murky pool of darkness any day. So, don't go running out to Netflix to rent the film (how do things even work anymore?), but if it's a choice between this and, say, a Transformers marathon, you could do slightly worse.

Killer: The Ghost (?) of Tyler Welles (Charles Braun)
Final Girl: Jackie (Mollie O'Mara)
Best Kill: Susan pulls the chain on a light bulb and it electrocutes her. This is the kind of design flaw you'd think the engineer might have noticed, but American craftsmanship just isn't what it used to be.
Sign of the Times: Elizabeth wears a pair of cream-colored heels that I'm pretty sure dissipated back into the netherworld at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve in 1989.
Scariest Moment: The opening (see: only) effects shot is quite a doozy.

Weirdest Moment: A Jewish doctor named Robert Fisher mysteriously appears at the beginning and end of the film although he was never asked to come to the house and has no impact on the plot whatsoever.
Champion Dialogue: "You're gonna make a pretty good parent the way that you're worrying. Just kidding."
Body Count: 9; including the killer, assuming he wasn't a ghost maybe.
  1. Rosemary is cleavered in the mouth.
  2. Karen is hung on a hook.
  3. Kate is drowned in the lake.
  4. Bruce is run over by a car.
  5. Adelle is killed offscreen.
  6. Susan is electrocuted on a light chain.
  7. Paul is pitchforked in the chest.
  8. Jennifer Welles is tossed down the stairs in a flashback.
  9. Tyler Welles has his eyes poked out. 
TL;DR: Girls School Screamers is a plodding, sexless wisp of an exploitation film.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1418

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Day 5

Year: 1984
Director: Richard W. Haines
Cast: Forbes Riley, Rick Randig, Dick Biel
Run Time: 1 hour 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Splatter University, one of the most enticingly-named college slashers thus far, had the misfortune of coming out during the subgenre's first tragic death. It's not like the film was ever going to be any good (especially being distributed by Troma, the patron saint of intentionally bad filmmaking), but a straightforward campus slashfest was exactly what the market had far too much of by this point in the decade.

The MPAA and angry parent organizations had been making overtures at shutting down the slashers for years and their great victory seemingly came when Paramount decided to (very temporarily) lay to rest their biggest cash cow with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in April. The format was quickly rejuvenated in November with the cinderblock-smashing hit A Nightmare on Elm Street, but a film waving its flag for the splatter genre during those few months was pretty much guaranteed to be DOA.

It also doesn't help that the movie's crap, but that's irrelevant.

Splatter University details the exploits of Julie Parker (Forbes Riley), a new professor at St. Trinian's University. Although her cheerful demeanor seems unimpeachable, her resilience is challenged by a loudly disinterested sociology class, headmaster (? I don't know, it's a Catholic college) Father Janson's (Dick Biel) resistance against her discussion of controversial topics, and - oh - an escaped lunatic mowing down sexually promiscuous women on campus. As she and her coworker Cynthia (Laura Gold) investigate the identity of the culprit, she begins to suspect that her new boyfriend Mark (Ric Randig) may be behind the serial murders.

Also, because adults aren't nubile enough to keep your typical slasher fan invested (especially during the genre's autumnal decline), there's a heaping helping of useless teen Meat generously dumped across the film. Many of these scenes were filmed a year after initial production to pad out the run time, which was barely over an hour in the original cut. That should tell you all you need to know about Splatter University, which feels lopsided thanks to having another, entirely separate, teen film roughly wedged between its frames.

Far too many of these unnecessary teens fail to die, but the important ones include Doreen (Joanna Mihalakis), an unpleasant girl who's always running off to do homework; Tony (George Seminara), Doreen's boyfriend and a business major getting his start early by selling prescription drugs; Wolf (Sal Lumetta), a horny bastard who got his nickname from his penchant for howling or maybe vice versa; Kathy (Kathy LaCommare - and we're at the point where the screenwriters were so lazy they didn't even think of new names), an edgy girl with a mullet on her head and a bun in the oven; and Denise (Denise Texeira), this film's designated 80's Ambassador with studded fingerless gloves and hair that increases in diameter with every scene she's in.

After she dies, the hair subsumes her body and skitters away into the sewers.

Several storylines are relatively unique to the slasher genre, like the pregnant quasi-heroine (used rather infrequently, though notably in several early efforts) or the exploration of the ins and outs of campus politics. I'd shudder at the thought that you might infer that Splatter University has anything valuable to say about these topics (other than the fact that pretty much all extremist conservatives are one R-rated movie away from becoming knife-wielding psychopaths), but their presence is valuable nonetheless.

This is comforting because the plot at large is perfunctory and extremely disjointed, to the point where half of the deaths are never even mentioned again after they occur. And the central mystery is a dry little crackerjack, wetted only by some of the kills, which are of a piece ineptly executed but gooey enough to provide some of the charnel house thrills that slasher films thrive on. But there's no point beating around the bush, most of Splatter University is just plain bad.

Between ceaseless, bleating repetitions of the one surf rock song the filmmakers could afford to include on the soundtrack, there are frequent and irksomely lengthy fades to black that feel like they belong to a TV movie. This at least matches the tone of the performances, which are sub-informercial quality. Unfortunately there are no truly memorable bad line readings like in yesterday's Pieces, but Forbes Riley's insistent refusal to pronounce "Mark" any way other than "Mork" does cheer one up.

Cut her some slack. She teaches sociology, not English.

Also, random extras linger in the background just watching the actors as they "perform." It's by far the creepiest part of the film.

So. Splatter University's deficiencies are impossible to overlook. And with any other film displaying similarly dismaying construction, I might suggest just chucking your Netflix DVD in the garbage and telling them you never received it in order to save future customers the pain of queueing it out of morbid curiosity. But Troma chose to distribute the film for a reason and it has one saving grace. The notoriously zany tone of the company's productions isn't present here in spades, but Splatter University is so brief that it's kind of pleasantly daffy and has some moments of genuine, sparkling humor.

Some moments are just quietly strange, like the title card of the post-prologue scene which reads "the next semester yesterday..." But a surprising many of the film's nutty idiosyncrasies cause legitimate, unironic laughter. Moments like the morbid landlady Mrs. Bloom (Mary Ellen David) telling the story of a previous tenant's poisoning, or a handful of the teens' one-liners ("Did you hear Cathy was killed at the drive-in?" "No sh*t! What was playing?") are authentically delightful.

Of course, a couple grim-faced japes aren't enough to recommend a movie as thoroughly shoddy as Splatter University, but at least it tries. And - most importantly - it's short. It's hard to hate a movie that's already over. So with that scant praise, I leave Splatter University and wish you a happy tomorrow. Send me good wishes over my last first weekend of homework!

Killer: [Father Janson (Dick Biel)]
Final Girl: Julie Parker (Forbes Riley)
Best Kill: Doreen is sliced across the forehead, which is certainly creative and evidently very effective.

Sign of the Times: When Tony asks John if he could borrow an exam he's copying he says he would never give one away for free because he's not a Communist.
Scariest Moment: Julie helps students open a locked closet, only to discover the corpse of her best friend inside.
Weirdest Moment: The most famous person in the film is the girl on the poster (Elizabeth Kaitan of Friday the 13th Part VII and Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2), who doesn't appear in a single frame.
Champion Dialogue: "My stupid teacher got killed. What a pain in the ass."
Body Count: 8; although it feels like much, much less.
  1. Doctor McDouchebag is stabbed in the crotch.
  2. Janet Phillips is stabbed in the boob.
  3. Doreen is sliced on the forehead.
  4. Cathy has her throat slit.
  5. Cynthia is generically killed offscreen.
  6. Margaret is stabbed in the gut.
  7. Denise is stabbed in the mouth.
  8. [Julie is stabbed in the back and filleted.
TL;DR: Splatter University is a terrible slasher movie, but is slightly redeemed by a genuine sense of humor.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1223

Friday, January 23, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Day 4

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1982
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Cast: Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Ian Sera
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

Now's the time where things get really weird. Our fourth collegiate slasher entry for the week - Pieces (aka Mil gritos tiene la noche) - hails from Spain in 1982, by which time slashers had crept over the globe like the invasive kudzu plant. Just like the Canadian slashers before it, Pieces bends over backwards to pretend it's American, to the point where the frame is doused in product placement for Wendy's, American film posters (including 1981's Friday the 13th Part 2), and - my personal favorite - framed photos of Ronald Reagan on the walls.

In spite of this back-breaking effort, the film can't escape a thick sheen of Euro sleaze, for which it benefits more than anything else. Without the strange coloring of a (largely inept) foreign take on the tropes of the genre, Pieces wouldn't be anything more than a typical low-grade campus slasher. But with it? It's still enormously low-grade, that's for sure, but it has enough purely campy or slightly pretty elements to allow it to pass with flying colors.

Four days in, I'm quickly running out of school puns.

Our story begins in "Boston," where young Timmy (Alejandro Hernández) is playing in his toy room with clear intent to transition into playing with himself, once he finishes his naughty naked lady puzzle. When his mother catches him and smashes a mirror in rage (she's so angry, she even smashes it again in slow motion), he surprises her with a an axe to the skull and a bit of post-mortem sawing to boot. Cut to 40 years later on an unnamed Boston campus in Madrid.

When a mysterious killer shown only in silhouette begins murdering co-eds around campus and removing parts of them with a chainsaw, it soon becomes clear that his wicked intent is to stitch together into a sort of Frankenstein sex doll. As healthy young women drop like flies (but not before baring their breasts) and the killer puts the bloody puzzle from his childhood back together piece by piece, police spy/tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George of Mortuary) is enlisted by Lt. Bracken (Christopher "Mr. Lynda" George, also of Mortuary and Graduation Day) and Sgt. Holden (Frank Braña) to masquerade as a tennis coach on campus and work with the Dean (Edmund Purdom of Don't Open Till Christmas) to try and track down the mysterious madman.

The suspects include Professor Brown (Jack Taylor of Edge of the Axe), a closeted homosexual and anatomy professor - it's a toss-up as to which makes him more sinister; Willard (Paul L. Smith), the creepy groundskeeper with an affinity for chainsaws and being in the wrong place at the wrong time - think of him as a more pervy Hagrid; and Kendall (Ian Sera), the campus lothario whose girlfriend becomes the second victim at the school swimming hole. His alibi for not being at the pool where she told him to meet her so they could have sex? He was busy banging a different chick he found on the way over. Later in the film, a girl squeals with pleasure before he even touches her and, when admonished for making so much noises, eagerly suggests that he could gag her. The police decide that this horny Romeo is much too slick and awesome to be the killer, so they immediately enlist him to aide Mary in her investigation, no questions asked. 

It's good to be the king.

Pieces is well-liked by the horror crowd, but only as a Troll 2-esque trash gem, so why don't we try a little counter-programming and begin with what's good about it? This won't take long.

The best thing about the film is by far its cinematography. Aside from having the dusky romantic glow of a cheap foreign film processed through about a dozen different formats, the imagery is largely well-composed, with special focus on the power of shadow. Especially in the aerobics hall scene, light and shadow is used to suggest movement and project sinister intentions. Small points of light in the darkness bear the most visual information of some scenes, making subtle implications rather than straightforward statements.

Wasn't that fun? Now, on to the bad stuff.

There's plenty where that came from.

Although the film is a little too repetitive and has a lethargically stately pace, there are moments of pure bad-good camp gold littered throughout that make it all worthwhile. It starts off small, with little moments like Kendall reading a note in the library where the voiceover is whispering. But before long, the movie cuts loose and rams full speed into moments like the killer hiding a chainsaw behind his back in an elevator, cops shooting the hinge off a door, and - a perennial favorite - Lynda Day George channeling the forceful energy of every damsel ever tied to the railroad tracks to cleave the heavens in two with a rapturous, thunderous cry of "BASTARD!"

Along with these scattered treasures (I won't even mention the ending), the entire film is blessed with an otherworldly patina by the just barely out-of-sync dubbing and the dialogue which was clearly written by people with a less than workable knowledge of the English language and performed as if it were the first time the lines were being read*

The pinnacle of these scrappable scriptural moments is when a police officer thanks a records employee by saying "I'll send you a case of lollipops," but there's plenty of instant classics like "Don't tell me I'm the bearer of bad news, I could kill myself," "We don't have any more time. Take some uppers or something," and a girl flirting with a professor by asking where her pectorals are. The rest of the script is made up of odd non sequiturs or responses that are just one degree off from real human speech, like when I've just woken up and groggily answer "How did you sleep?" with "Thank you." It's really more like a group of humans talking at one another than legitimate, organic dialogue, and it is purely fascinating. 

*The actors (who are of a piece equally inept, though several of the minor female classmates are the most insidiously horrendous) begin each line with no clear idea how it will end, shifting allegiances and enunciations with unsteady bravura halfway through. Even the climactic discovery is bungled, with the police declaring the identity of the murderer like it was their coffee order.

Caption Contest: What do you think Willard says in this scene?

While the dialogue and presentation are deliciously fun, the mystery at the center of Pieces is a muddled affair, with halfhearted but admirably persistent red herrings forming most of the B-story while nameless nubile women are chopped up at every turn. Each kill is preceded by about two minutes of sexy scene-setting, whether it be sexy swimming, sexy aerobics, or two full rounds of sexy tennis. And although many of the murders aren't spectacularly bloody thanks to budgetary limitations, given the context what is shown (a girl peeing herself in fear, a stabbing on a water bed, some splashy geysers of blood) is palpably, unavoidably misogynistic.

The slasher genre is never more than two steps away from uncomfortable gender relations, but in Pieces it's hard to ignore. The killer's sexual neurosis is exploited rather than explored in any meaningful way, and Mary - the one lady cop - is wimpy and malleable, melting like a Drumstick on the kitchen counter (don't ask, the wound's still fresh) whenever something violent happens. On top of that, the victims aren't even characters. They exist solely as the film's pound of flesh with no personality traits or affectations, just a heap of skin and a scream.

Pieces is still a fun watch, but between the duller moments and the griminess of its exploitation, you're gonna have to grit your teeth to get through it. It's absolutely worth checking out for any fan of the best of the worst cinema has to offer, especially if you're looking for gems with less airtime than films like The Room or Troll 2. So I suppose the overall net worth is positive, but not by a wide enough margin to really be proud of.

Killer: Charlie Chainsaw [The Dean (Edward Purdom)]
Final Girl: Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George) sort of.
Best Kill: Virginia Palmer is abruptly decapitated with a chainsaw in the quad in broad daylight. Nobody seems to care.
Sign of the Times: We have the distinct pleasure of watching a solid two minutes of aerobics (oh how the 80's loved their rhythmic exercises) to a song that sounds like a robot trying to sing disco.
Scariest Moment: The kettle abruptly goes off while [the Dean is spiking Mary's coffee with Evil Drugs.]
Weirdest Moment: When Mary is creeping around the campus, a Bruce Lee impersonator leaps out of nowhere, attacks her with martial arts, then immediately falls to the ground, asleep. When Kendall shows up, he explains that it's just his kung fu professor, who then wakes up and claims he ate bad chop suey, so he must have blacked out.
Champion Dialogue: "The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a water bed at the same time."
Body Count: 7; including the killer.
  1. Timmy's Mom is axed in the head and decapitated.
  2. Virginia Palmer is decapitated with a chainsaw.
  3. Jenny is drowned with a pool net and dismembered offscreen.
  4. Mary has her arm cut off with a chainsaw.
  5. Sylvia is stabbed to death on a waterbed.
  6. Tennis girl is chainsawed in half.
  7. [The Dean is shot in the head.
TL;DR: Pieces is an absurd mess of a slasher with enough outrageous campy moments to make it noteworthy but only to the most minimal degree.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1657

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Day 3

Year: 1982
Director: Robert Deubel
Cast: Julia Montgomery, James Carroll, Suzanne Barnes
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One of the fun (read: intensely aggravating) things about documenting slasher history is that, just like the internal morality of the genre, its timeline is monumentally dubious. With big Hollywood movies, it's easy to track when they came out, what theaters they played in, and all sorts of nonsense like that. Everyone who was alive enough to participate remembers when Die Hard came out. It's freaking Die Hard.

But slashers are generally formed in the other end of the Hollywood spectrum. Although several were released or even produced under the wing of some of the big studios (Paramount wide-distributed Friday the 13th and MGM gave the world Killer Party), but many of the upwards of 300 slasher films made and released in the decade weren't so lucky. A vast majority were cobbled together in someone's backyard with the hopes that, once they were finished, they could find a home with some local distributor looking to make a quick buck.

This system means that many of the lower tier slashers have an infinitum of names, poster art, recuts, and release dates. Such is the case with today's collegiate slasher, a 1982 film known widely (or about as widely as these things can possibly be) as Girls Nite Out, a title it was given during its 1984 re-release. Its original title was The Scaremaker, so if we want to be period-accurate, we might as well call it by that name. But if we want to be popularity-accurate and not make fools of ourselves because that original name is a turd, it might be better to stick with Girls Nite Out.

You can see where things might get a little confusing. At any rate, the film we're looking at is going to be called Girls Nite Out throughout this review, because if there's one thing I know, it's that if I just pick the name that I prefer and stick with it, nobody will complain because I guarantee not a single person born post-1990 outside of a very select group will ever make motions to view this film. And not a single person born in or before the 80's is likely to have overly fond memories of this decent but forgettable flick, so I'm pretty much diplomatically immune from stirring the waters of nerd rage.

Anyway - on with the show!

Raise your hand if you wish I was obsessed with romantic comedies.

Girls Nite Out takes place on the campus of DeWitt University, a small but sprawling college in Weston Hill, Ohio which - in the heady tradition of slasher movies ripping off of one another to the point of farce - is about 90% comprised of heavy woodland. After an inmate named Dickie Cavanaugh hangs himself in the nearby asylum, his gravediggers are murdered by a mysterious assailant, who then heads toward the school to reward its reliably teeming pool of sluts and whores with premature, bloody death.

After killing the school's mascot and taking his costume - a dancing bear - the shadowy figure pimps itself out with a set of knives shaped like a bear's claw (this is two years before A Nightmare on Elm Street, mind you, though there is no reasonable evidence that this film could have been seen by Wes Craven - or anybody else - prior to that film's release) and gallivants around during the annual sorority scavenger hunt, whispering sweet nothings about promiscuity while slicing co-eds to bits.

It's perhaps not quite as menacing as I've made it sound.

Also check out these knife claws! It's like the No Fear Shakespeare version of Freddy Krueger.

Of course, before the killing can begin we must Meet the Meat, who up until this point have been partying the night away at a post-game basketball celebration that is either a costume party or an Oldies party, nobody is quite clear on that. The incessant repetition of the song "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy" is a substantial clue, but one gets the sense that the producers dug through their garage and all they could find was this and a Lovin' Spoonful record, so they decided to make the most of it. So it's still up in the air, but what you need to take away from this is that everybody is dressing up, getting drunk, and hooking up, as randy collegiates are wont to do.

At the center of this hormonal firestorm are Lynn (Julia Montgomery), a slightly prudish but fiercely loyal and jealous blondie; Teddy (James Carroll of He Knows You're Alone), Lynn's boyfriend and captain of the basketball team; Dawn (Suzanne Barnes), a gold digger and the object of Teddy's illicit affections; Peter "Maniac" Krizaniac (Mart McChesney), star ball player and the object of Teddy's repressed homoerotic fascinations, at least as evidenced by how much time they spend together shirtless, feeding each other Jack Daniels; Leslie (Lois Robbins), Peter's ex-girlfriend who finally realized she couldn't compete with the twin temptations of basketball and Teddy's firm chest; Benson (Mathew Dunn), the horned-up president of Delta Phi who moonlights as the school's mascot; and Sheila (Lauren-Marie Taylor of Friday the 13th Part 2), Benson's second cousin/penis recipient who is carelessly cheating on her boyfriend Mike (David Holbrook), an early member of the Nice Guy movement who gives us our first suspect when he storms out of the party shouting about how everyone is whores.

And that's not even mentioning the hip waitress Barney (Rutanya Alda), Mac (the Hal Holbrook) the campus police officer with a dark past, and a gaggle of individuals with speaking parts who resolutely refuse to die, including a radio DJ, two hyperactive theater kids, a nerd, a rich douche, and a modest sprinkling of sorority bimbos. So now that we've given every struggling actor in 80's Hollywood their fifteen minutes of fame, let's get down to the good stuff.

Smokey the Bear here, reminding you that only you can prevent forest skewerings.

As the bear stomps around killing pairs of sorority girls after they inevitably split up when trying to decipher cryptic clues, a problem becomes immediately apparent. Though a couple of the murders are smeared with enough ketchup blood to pique the interest of any slasher buff, they are of a piece that ill-defined type of murder where their corpse ends up covered in blood from no discernible source. Slasher films get their power from specificity - fans want to see the gore and know exactly what painful thing is occurring where. That's what makes gory kills so squeal-inducing.

The noncommittal murders just don't really cut it, and the killer's incessant whispering devalues the whole experience. Much like someone hugging a concerto when you're trying to make out with them, whispering killers are just a huge distraction. In the genre, the two big archetypes are "silent, masked killer" and "killer who only speaks in terrible puns," so I suppose there's room for a solid median, but this bear's endless, gravelly ruminations on the whorelike qualities of his victims just doesn't cut the mustard (er- ketchup).

And the grand reveal in the finale [Barney is secretly Katie Cavanaugh, Dickie's twin sister, who is keeping his body in the freezer and channeling his vengeful spirit] ends the film with a whimper, exposing the killer's identity but refusing to extrapolate what that might actually mean for the narrative, ending on a macabre image without pursuing the implications of it. It's like fading out on the chorus of a great song, never giving it a chance to end on a real corker.

Although, in fairness, maybe that was never a possibility to begin with.

In addition to the clumsy kills, the plot is more like a series of disconnected vignettes with an overlong police procedural tacked on after it should have ended. And the acting is... challenged. Peter especially performs like his lips were stung by a bee and are slowly swelling while he speaks. Hal Holbrook is decent (as he should be), but his parts were clearly shot separately from the rest of the cast so he is penned in either by talking on the phone or joining conversations from a shadowy limbo zone. So no, Girls Nite Out is not a great film. But what strengths it does possess lie solely in the realm of the bizarre, an area I have a great deal of respect for.

A large portion of the plot is devoted to the characters partying, which is generally the more tedious segment of the slasher formula, but with such a vast array of incredibly strange characters, Girls Nite Out becomes a fascinating curio of retro eccentricity. One common slasher trope that I have noted time and time again is the tendencies for characters to pull impressions out of thin air, but this film takes that idea and runs a marathon with it.

In a three minute scene, the pair of comic relief theater kids trade off approximately 679 impressions, waggle their tongues enough times to make Gene Simmons uncomfortable, and run off smacking their asses and chanting like tribal warriors. This carries on into just about every male character in the bunch as Benson spouts a drunken limerick, Teddy imitates cowboys and gentlemen and Peter imitates Mrs. Bates from Psycho and some sort of... sex Frankenstein. 

Hey, I didn't say they were GOOD impressions.

On top of that blanket of peculiarity, Girls Nite Out is full of gem moments like Mac drawing hair over a newspaper picture to discover what the man's twin sister would look like, a whole day being skipped without anybody really noticing, and - most importantly of all - the ponderous amount of time devoted to depictions of shirtless men in just about every scenario imaginable.

This is perhaps the single most exciting element of the film, and yes I do mean academically (to a point). In a genre notable and derisible for exploiting the female form, Girls Nite Out not only exploits the men with fervor, it has a big honkin' zero boob scenes. The women always demurely cover themselves with bedsheets or bubbles, leaving the men free to bandy about their firmer bits for the world to see. In fact, some scenes are so shameless that for a second I thought the uploader had accidentally switched the tape with something called "Locker Room Bonanza LXIX."

Don't believe me? Take a gander.

Things are about to get steamy for young Maniac.

These gentlemen are one Brokeback away from mounting each other.

So despite the deficiencies of Girls Nite Out, its predilection for male flesh sets it apart from its kin. It's not an easy film to recommend, but the costume is unique (if campy), the weapon is clever for a pre-Freddy slasher and the scavenger hunt framing device, though not thoroughly explored, is a clever setting for what could have been just another generic campus slasher. Though it may not be a diamond in the rough, it's forgotten, unorthodox films like these that keep me coming back to the slasher well after all this time.

Killer: The DeWitt Bear [Katie Cavanaugh/Barney (Rutanya Alda)]
Final Girl: Lynn Connors (Julia Montgomery), I guess.
Best Kill: Benson is stabbed in the pecs. He died as he lived, resolutely shirtless.
Sign of the Times: Peter's post-game outfit of choice is a pair of bright green Converse high-tops draped around his neck over a tastefully timeless fringed leather jacket.
Scariest Moment: A nurse walks into Dickie Cavanaugh's room and his hanging corpse drops down from the door frame.
Weirdest Moment: When Teddy and Lynn are relaxing post-coitus, he says "I think I heard something outside!" then farts in bed.
Champion Dialogue: "What are you gonna have for dessert, a stomach pump?"
Body Count: 8
  1. Dickie Cavanaugh hangs himself.
  2. Gravedigger #1 is hit with a shovel.
  3. Gravedigger #2 is hacked with a shovel.
  4. Benson is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Jane is clawed in the throat.
  6. Kathy is killed offscreen.
  7. Sheila is clawed in the throat.
  8. Leslie is killed offscreen. 
TL;DR: Girls Nite Out is a slasher with uncomfortable and ill-rendered kills, but its clever framing device and ample male flesh slightly make up for that.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 2044